Primary jitters and our political process
Although I track what happens on the political front -- checking on some of the stump speeches just to be sure there isn't some good news that will surprise me -- the process, I must admit, is frightening.
For someone who came to this country very hopeful about citizenship in a free society, the political election process is a big disappointment. It is also of great concern that despite the proliferation of organizations championing bona fide liberty, the evidence seems to be that matters are getting worse, not better. As Milton Friedman said, it looks like concern about freedom is nearly completely absent from mainstream politics, even while some free institutions have gotten a boost in places around the globe - for example, privatization and open borders. In the past, at least, when von Mises and von Hayek were doing all their major work, talk about freedom, an interest in understanding and championing it, seemed to be more popular, an element of mainstream politics.
What is scary to me is that many citizens of the United States carry on enthusiastically about the electoral process despite that what's offered to them betrays all the greatest, most distinctive principles of their country. Just to focus on the most obvious thing, none of the candidates, not one, is concerned with individual liberty, with the violation of individual rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness on innumerable fronts. Even their anti-Bush lambastes tends to get bogged down in minutia not focusing on how Ashcroft & Co. are changing this country into fortress America.
To the contrary, candidates openly, unabashedly, make promises that clearly involve such violations and no one in mainstream America seems to care. Then there is the constant refrain about how they will never serve special interests when in fact all they do is cater to special interests everywhere they address the public.
If it isn't about the worries of older people, then candidates pitch their Santa Claus routine to those in various professions, such as farmers, educators, artists, steel workers, or to people with specific concerns (the environment, employment, medical problems, issues about transportation). Or they seek out ordinary human fears about strong competition from newly emerging markets abroad, terrorism, the possibility of poverty or lack of medical insurance, and they stress these, evidently hoping there will be enough voters who will be spurred to support them.
The bottom line is that it doesn't really look like most Americans give a damn about the steady erosion of their liberties and the virtually unstoppable growth of state power. Of course, since there are market forces afoot - even while the relevance of them is being either ignored or denied - the quasi-intellectual voices in the public forums feed the general disinterest in liberty perfectly, by echoing the lack of concern with basic principles while focusing on trivial details. Even the best of the programs on TV, such as Charlie Rose's interviews, or essays in magazines such as The New Republic, Commentary or National Review, systematically ignore the basics and keep focusing on such trivia as which demographic group is being appeased more effectively by what candidate, who is pleasing blacks, Hispanics, college students or the elderly more or who is running closer to God this year!
Of course, we have been warned about this - as in Jefferson's famous statement about the tendency of government to gain power and liberty to diminish, Lord Acton's insight about the corrupting influence of power, and Ludwig von Mises' thesis about where all those small steps toward government's planning of our lives will ultimately lead. I recall including an essay by Friedman in my first edited book, "The Libertarian Alternative" (Nelson Hall, 1974), which argued that freedom lasts but a brief period in various stages of humanity's history, after which varieties of coercive regimes return for long spells. I had hoped, along with Friedman, to alert folks about this record so as to resist its repetition, but I doubt the effort has done much good.
My main reaction to all this is to persist in doing what I can to balance out the pathetic lack of the bulk of the public's interest in the free society, with the message that such neglect will have disastrous consequences and amounts to a gross breach of human morality.
Perhaps the massive reality of people's getting things wrong naturally overwhelms any serious prospect of right answers triumphing over the long haul.
Still, I hope this isn't so - although, judging by the rhetoric of the Democratic primaries and the sorry spectacle of candidates running and winning who have no commitment to anything truly important in the political sphere, I have to pause at times and ask myself whether there really is a chance to make things better.
Tibor Machan is a professor of business ethics and Western Civilization at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and author of "Putting Humans First" (Rowman & Littlefield). He advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at Machan@chapman.edu